'This moment in history demands it': Sweeping changes to budget, policy proposed for Austin police after protests
The Austin City Council is poised to order sweeping changes to police work, responsibilities and spending as early as this week, members said on Monday, a day after thousands marched peacefully to protest police brutality.
A package of resolutions addressing everything from the budget for the Austin Police Department to its staffing, from its use of force during arrests and protests to the very types of calls police should address, is up for a vote at the regular Austin City Council meeting Thursday.
"Our black and brown communities deserve it, our city needs it, and this moment in history demands it," said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, a member of the council's judicial committee, which sponsored the proposals.
Some of those measures, like bans on the use of tear gas in protests and limits on no-knock warrants, can go into effect right away, said Council Member Greg Casar, another committee member.
Others, including proposed staffing reductions and budget cuts at the Austin Police Department, won't be officially addressed until budget season later this year.
"These are not problems that can be fixed overnight, but the backlog is so big we can kick this journey off with a flurry of activities," said Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who is also on the committee.
Several protesters were seriously injured during clashes with officers during the first week of demonstrations over the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and Michael Ramos in Austin in April.
Resolutions appearing on the agenda for Thursday's regular City Council meeting propose changes including police use-of-force reforms, an audit of Austin police disciplinary procedures, a rewrite of the department's general orders, capping police staff at current levels and redirecting those budget dollars to community-based prevention strategies. They also address housing for former inmates and other community issues.
The resolutions appear to have broad support of the council and Mayor Steve Adler. The press conference on Monday only included the four sponsors, and Adler, as open meetings laws prohibit a quorum of council members from meeting without public notice.
Garza and Casar, another member of the judicial committee, have both suggested that Austin Police Chief Brian Manley step down as an act of good faith and the first step toward systemic change in the department.
They and two others, including Judicial Committee Chairman Jimmy Flannigan, last week expressed criticism over Manley's handling of recent police protests—as well as heading up a department that they said is generally slow to respond to council directives. Manley joined the force in 1990 and became chief in 2018.
Asked Monday if they would be taking that further, members did not repeat their call for Manley to resign and noted that City Manager Spencer Cronk alone has the authority to decide whether Manley stays.
Cronk last week issued a statement in support of Manley and city officials told Austonia on Friday there is no movement afoot to replace him.
But one of the resolutions does include a statement of no confidence in department leadership.
"We can express our opinion, as many of us have, but we are prohibited in interfering in personnel decisions," Casar said.
Said Harper-Madison: "We're basically asking our manager to heed the concerns and recommendations of the community and our constituents regarding Chief Manley's future with the Austin Police Department."
The resolutions, which include Items 50, 93, 95, 96 and 97 on the agenda, can be found here. Changes will be addressed formally in the regular meeting of the Austin City Council on Thursday.
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Austin's Delta 8 industry has been turned on its head after Texas health officials clarified that the cannabinoid is on the state list of illegal substances, though it was previously believed to be legal by most retailers, consumers and manufacturers.
House Bill 1325, which was signed in June 2019 by Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Farm Bill, signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018, legalized any hemp product containing less than .3% THC. The same bills were thought to have made Delta 8 legal, though the Texas Department of State Health Services added a notice on its website saying it was still a controlled substance as of Friday, Oct. 15.
Both the federal and state governments keep separate lists on what is considered a controlled substance. Marijuana is considered Schedule I, a category reserved for substances with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," both statewide and federally.
Austin-based CBD retailer Grassroots Harvest CEO Kemal Whyte, like many CBD shop retailers, was blindsided by the announcement. Many small businesses rely on Delta 8 for their sales—Green Herbal Care CBD said about 90% of its sales come from Delta 8—and Whyte said he is frustrated by the inconsistencies in the drug scheduling system.
Since 87% of Texans support the legalization of marijuana, at least for medical use, per a recent poll, Whyte said he wonders who this legislation is for.
"It's gonna have a massive impact on small businesses—there's just no way around it," Whyte said. "The reality is, we don't want to push out anything bad for our customers, we want this to benefit our customers and to help them. If we can make money while doing it, that's the American dream. What are we doing, whose benefit is this for?"
Delta 8 surged in popularity after the perceived legalization—consumers enjoyed its lower psychotropic potency, decreased anxiety while using it and the peace of mind as a legal way to get high. So in order to protect their products and livelihoods, both Grassroots Harvest and Austin-based manufacturer Hometown Heroes are taking legal action.
Whyte said Grassroots Harvest is suing DSHS, saying their action is creating negative effects in the market. Meanwhile, a Hometown Heroes spokesperson said the company is in the process of filing a temporary restraining order that would pause the ban on Delta-8 in the state of Texas.
Threats against Delta 8 are not new—DSHS lost a lawsuit trying to make "smokable hemp products" illegal last year and Texas lawmakers had been considering a bill that would make Delta 8 illegal, though it was dropped after the clarification was made.
Hometown Heroes released a formal statement in response to the DSHS rule.
"I need to be clear—we love Texas, we're just choosing to fight for the will of the people in regards to cannabis in Texas," Hometown Hero CEO Lukas Gilkey said in a statement. "(Texas DSHS) are using backhanded ways to create legislation and go against the will of the people."
Whyte laments the fact that it would be easier legally to "open up a strip club that also sells guns," and said he can't post customer testimonials that mention the benefits of Delta 8 without getting hit with a cease and desist from the Food and Drug Administration. Whyte said he isn't opposed to regulation—far from it—he just wants to see it go through the correct channels.
"The fact that they're stunting our ability to communicate with our clients that want to learn about this, you're preventing us from communicating with them and teaching them, or spreading information that we know," Whyte said. "I think that that in and of itself opens up a lot of questions."
Grassroots Harvest still has Delta 8 products on its shelves for the time being but for how long, Whyte doesn't know.
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Austin Public Health and other clinics around Austin are now providing booster shots for all three vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, to fully vaccinated individuals after both Pfizer and J & J were approved by the CDC on Wednesday.
APH and Austin clinics, which were already administering the approved Pfizer booster, will begin distributing shots as soon as Friday.
Those who received the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine more than six months ago are elligble to receive a booster if they are over 65 or if they are over 18 and:
- Live in a long-term care environment
- Have underlying medical conditions
- Work or live in high-risk settings, such as schools, hospitals or correctional facilities
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a media Q&A Friday that APH is encouraging boosters just as much as they have urged residents to get their first and second doses.
"Boosters are incredibly important to keeping our community protected and hospitalizations low," Walkes said. "If we can stay on top of our vaccinations, we provide protections for our most vulnerable and make it that much harder for COVID to spread in our community."
Eligible residents are free to choose the same booster as their first doses or "mix and match," per the CDC announcement.
Those looking for another dose can simply bring their vaccination card to APH centers or the dozens of Walgreens and CVS locations in the metro, which began administering doses Friday.
Additional updated guidance from the CDC allows for all eligible individuals to choose which vaccine they receive as a "mix-and-match" booster dose. It is advised to remember to bring your CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Card showing the original doses with you when going for booster shots.
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